Playing with words

Linnéa Bake on OMSK Social Club’s Participatory Tour into T(( ))mb at Mudam Luxembourg

In 1849, Dostoevsky was exiled to Omsk, Siberia for discussing banned literature in Tsarist Russia. The writer would spend four years in the Omsk prison/labor camp, having been found guilty of trying to ignite social reform using words. Those responsible for Dostoevsky’s imprisonment were neither the first nor the last to recognize the potential impact and political power of literature and, more generally speaking, fiction. In spring 2017, “Projekt Cassandra” was initiated, a pilot project funded by the German defense ministry, to test whether literature could be used as an “early warning system” to predict civil unrest, wars and uprisings. Literary scientists employed by this academic military unit developed a risk score system, defining 9 indicators per text, ultimately scoring the novels based on their thematic reach, narrative strategy, media response, censorship, scandals, and literary awards – a military-funded research into the prognostic potential of literature in conflict-prone regions with the working hypothesis that most wars are preceded by a “war of words”; and: with an unclear agenda as to what the outcomes of this scoring should be used for, and by whom.

If you find this hard to believe, keep reading. I was made aware of this military unit when I encountered it in one of OMSK Social Club’s recent artistic projects. Knowing the collective and their practice as mostly being “created between two lived worlds, one of life as we know it and the other of role play”, I assumed their reference to Projekt Cassandra was a product of speculative fiction, it sounding like something straight from a 1980s sci-fi novel. A quick Google search, however, confirmed that Projekt Cassandra was indeed very real (the project’s funding was terminated in 2020). OMSK Social Club’s artistic engagement with the question of how soon this literary science project would be weaponized convinced me to travel to Luxembourg, where they were to present their working process along with a number of other artistic collectives as part of The Collective Laboratory at Luxembourg’s contemporary art museum Mudam.

In the framework of the residency/exhibition project curated by Clémentine Proby and Line Ajan, six collectives from the fields of performance and publishing, OMSK Social Club among them, had been invited to each spend two weeks in a Collective Laboratory set up in the museum’s upstairs galleries, reminding me of other recent institutional attempts to make the (a)liveness of creative processes and collaborative working methods the subject of exhibitional forms. Aesthetically, I found the set up of The Collective Laboratory more intriguing than the scattered sticky notes, whiteboards and work stations that we’ve seen at documenta fifteen and other types of exhibitions-in-progress that have followed – at Mudam, sculptural remnants made from second-hand fur coats by the Paris-based collective crème soleil and a sleek stainless-steel food laboratory by London-based artist-cooking collective gobyfish were carefully arranged in the exhibition hall, remnants of these collectives’ prior presence in the space. Yet, it was specifically this “curatedness” that provoked my critical reflection on the performativity of the entire idea of working – on display – in the museum. In that sense, OMSK Social Club was probably the most suitable of the collectives invited to reflect on the museum residency itself as a performed idea: OMSK Social Club (the numbers and identities of the collective’s members remain undisclosed) often create durational and ephemeral experiences, developed as hybrids of Live Action Role Play (LARP) and what they call Real Game Play (RGP). Rather than documenting elements of pop and subculture in a static form, they invite players to participate in a game governed by a set of peculiar rules, allowing their audiences to temporarily co-inhabit the worlds they create. When I entered the space on January 13, 2024 to attend T(( ))mb, OMSK Social Club’s “live role-played participatory performance”, as announced by the museum, the collective had already been there for days, enacting the LARP that the work-in-progress residing within an institutional setting perhaps really is in itself: “playing house” in a museum. 

The complexities of the T(( ))mb were most intriguingly revealed in a dreamy eponymous film, in which I was introduced to the characters that populate this world: Hollis, Eden, Odie, Aria, Skyler, Tatum and Lennox – I never actually encountered OMSK Social Club, of course, rather these seven characters embodied in an aesthetically unsurprising, LARP-y medieval-cosplay-ish yet beautifully queer fashion by members of the collective.

From the introduction by Hollis, our tour guide into the depths of the T(( ))mb

“Languages orchestrate our worlds. They create a climate of reality we can inhabit. […] In the worlds we inhabit, what is seen as meaningful is “curved” by the shape of languages. Like gravity, languages warp the worlds around us. When you push a language out from your body, you change the center of gravity around you. You effectively re-order and arrange the particles that make and unmake reality.” 

Following this prompt, the seven characters proceeded to take the audience through a range of exercises: a self-discovery trip into how languages shape our consciousness, perception and knowledge. With the aim to escape language as “norm-based society’s most effective prison”, during the ensuing three hours we were invited to envisage languages that sit beyond the edge of our own imagination – for instance by cartographically mapping our inner body and creating an “exo exquisite corpse”, by deep listening and scoring our experience of sound on paper, by cuddling with a freezer bag filled with water, getting to know it (“Repeat daily until the bag starts leaking.”) or by collectively performing a whispering seance, a burial ritual for Lennox, one of the characters who, holding a glass filled with pink liquid, announced that she had “just drunk poison”.

Bringing it all back to Dostoevsky‘s prison (which OMSK Social Club indeed reference in their name), “Projekt Cassandra” and the weaponization of language (which the performance claimed to address) was not an easy task – neither in writing this nor in the experience itself. Lying on a yoga mat on the museum’s cold stone floor with my eyes closed, following what largely felt like a guided meditation, there were moments of immersion in which language did seem to have left my body; along with any clear awareness of where I was, why I had come here and who was addressing me. To be able to induce this trance of sorts, a state of comfort, in an audience member within an institutionally determined setting is remarkable in itself. Still, I was left wondering what OMSK/the LARP characters wanted to achieve with this game. For me, the claims that the announcement of their performance had made in relation to Projekt Cassandra seemed too serious and immediately topical to be addressed in this type of self-involved intro-exploration. Where I had come looking for a discussion on the manipulation of our use of language as we know it, I instead found the playful invention of new ones; where I had expected forms of communication, I found introspection; in search of strategies against the policing of words, I was met with what felt more like a refusal of language altogether, since much of what the LARP had produced as alternative forms of communicating and scoring language remained illegible and inaccessible to others. As Hollis put it, miscommunication, or “bad translations”, “proceed from the false grounding that languages simply symbolize the raw data of reality”, as in: something to be analyzed and, ultimately, controlled. Thus, the very strategy OMSK Social Club may have followed in their research into Projekt Cassandra was to enact ways to circumvent the very basis for such an observation of language as raw data – and they found this possibility in creating fiction.

In this sense, LARPing has been discussed extensively with regards to the potential that role play can have on our thoughts and actions out in the “real world”, and OMSK Social Club’s practice is not the only example of artistic or academic approaches towards employing the utopian impulse of LARPing as a method for analyzing a given situation (a political system, the logic of capitalism, gender roles, etc.) and imagining how it could be different. Offering the space to temporarily become somebody else, enacting different behaviors in an unknown scenario, or experiencing unfamiliar emotional states, a LARP can become a powerful empathic tool. But there is also another side to it: Remember the mob of Trump supporters who violently stormed the US Capitol in January 2021? While their wildly imaginative outfits and their “immersion” in an idea of an alternate political reality inevitably reminded me of LARPing – as a genre that still also evokes the image of geeky battle reenactments with fake swords – their actions showed another very real effect of the “bleed” between characters and their players, when the game is treated as a real possibility. If Dostoevsky’s motto was that “nothing is more fantastic than reality”, then LARPing, if one makes as serious claims with it as OMSK Social Club do – and if its intention is to address the role of art and its political or activist potential in the struggle between irreconcilable world views – also inevitably has to account for the reversal: nothing is more real than fantasy, if you give in to it.